Monday, September 24, 2018

FEH East Coast Championships: Conformation

This past weekend I tried out another new volunteer role: scribing at the Future Event Horse East Coast Championships at Loch Moy. Specifically, I was there for the conformation portion (unfortunately was not able to make my schedule work with the free jumping phases! next time!!).

shenanigans ensued!! and the usea photog was nice enough to let me snap a shot of this excellent moment that i was too slow to capture myself lol
I signed up mostly bc it seemed interesting and volunteerism is a big part of my goals this year. Plus Loch Moy is one of my favorite venues for volunteering, so I'm always eager to help out at any of their many events.

 baby horses in the rain!! via GIPHY

It seemed like a fantastic opportunity to learn a little more about what judges and breeders are looking for in the next generation of upper level event horses.

was surprised to not see as much overlap between this entry list and the YEH entries in terms of riders/handlers, tho there are some who are hallmarks of both classes (lookin at you, Martin!)
I've never claimed to be much of a conformation aficionado. In fact, quite the opposite: I'll be the first to admit that my eye for this sort of thing is not particularly well developed. In my humble opinion, many adult amateurs are often too fixated on the ideas of quality, talent and potential, at the expense of other attributes that are maybe more essential to amateur success at the lower levels. Like brain, disposition, temperament, etc.

some of these 2yos were damn impressive
It's not a super popular opinion, as evidenced by the somewhat controversial post I wrote on the subject and some of the subsequent commentary.... But I stand by that opinion.

this one had an extremely fancy trot!
Regardless, I'm still very interested in continuing my education in this area. To this end, scribing for this event was in fact quite useful. I learned a lot about what factors the judges are looking for in each horse when it comes to type, build, and movement.

a lot of them had feelings about the rain and puddles, but were all extremely well handled
Tho let's be real: just bc I heard the judges using certain terminology and describing certain aspects of each horse doesn't mean I could similarly identify those same aspects myself haha.

Some horses had this sort of obvious "impressiveness" about them that made them stand out from the rest, but even so, most of the distinctions the judges made were well beyond what my own naked eye can immediately see.

i believe this lovely chestnut Jaguar My won the 2yo colts class
I'll do my best to recount the details for you anyway, tho. There were four classes: 2 year olds and yearlings, one class each for colts and fillies. Judges used the same test sheet for both age groups, tho obviously there's a pretty big difference in build from a yearling to a two year old.

Many of the 2yos were already quite well built, whereas the yearlings were presented in all variations of growth spurts. Comes with the territory tho! And it's worth noting: while many of the yearlings were in awkward growth stages, changeable attributes like being croup high did not appear to impact overall scoring at all. Rather, it was the fixed elements of conformation (angles and such) that judges focused on.

he definitely had that certain something, that eye catching quality
Each handler began their presentation by bringing the horses to the "triangle" (visible in the background above) and standing the horses up for a preliminary inspection by the two judges.

Once the judges felt like they'd seen enough, the handlers walked the horses out to that yellow flower box visible in the mid left edge of the above picture, then walked across that middle ground line of poles, finally walking straight back to the judges. They then repeated the same circuit - except at trot and going all the way to the far back edge of the triangle above instead of cutting across the middle.

example of the score sheet and commentary for a well scoring horse
Then the handlers stood the horses up one last time for the judges to finalize their impressions before returning to the tent to confer. The two judges discussed each horse at length, and talked through any disagreements to ensure their scores weren't wildly off base from each other.

the judges were very forgiving of baby horses being.... baby horses
But ultimately each arrived at his own individual commentary and scores. Thus each judge had his own scribe and each horse received two test sheets at the end of the day.

pictures with the judges and competitors after the class was pinned!
The first part of the score sheet was all about Type. Specifically, the presence of "refining blood." I took this to understand the desire to continue introducing more thoroughbred blood into the bloodlines.

Judges wanted to see horses with a lighter build, more refined (vs coarse) connection points through the body. As opposed to the thicker, heavier warmblood build that is often less quick over the ground or able to hold up to the rigors of upper level eventing.
walkin in sync!! via GIPHY

Next block on the test sheet was Conformation: Frame, wherein the judges wanted to see fluid toplines, smooth connecting points in the body, a nice head and neck, and a general overall proportionate build. In this section they'd review areas like how the neck ties in to the body, or the shoulder angle, for instance.

obvi there's a big difference between yearlings and 2yos but.... still. wow.
It's notable that while some horses received comments along the lines of "under developed" neck or topline, the judges were actually pretty ok with this especially among the yearlings. With the idea being that a yearling with a big thick well developed neck is probably going to continue to thicken and grow heavier as it ages. Thus sorta negating that desire for the more refined overall build.

i was impressed with how quickly the judges could isolate the strengths and weaknesses with each horse!
Next portion on the test sheet was Conformation: Legs and Feet. This would be the area where I know the absolute least haha. Full disclosure. But this was actually often the sticking point for many of the horses. Particularly, I often heard the judges say quietly to each other (absolutely not to the competitors, obvi), "lovely horse but you couldn't buy that forelimb."

walking across the mid section of the triangle via GIPHY

The most common defect observed by the judges was not enough bone below the knees. I guess this issue comes hand in hand with breeding for a lighter and lighter, more refined horse. The lighter build often comes at the expense of lighter limbs. But the judges still wanted to see strong bone through the cannons (not too long!), correct pasterns and angles, and good quality feet.

this lovely yearling colt Royal Casino i believe won his class
The judges were also quick to identify any conformation flaws like being over or behind at the knee, or just a bit "flat" kneed (many examples were had through the classes). They also identified feet they found too boxy and would include on the commentary advice for handlers to keep an eye out for any one limb that looked suspect.

sure isn't much there not to like, eh?
It was interesting tho, bc even some of the most nicely built horses with the nicest movement lost out big time (sometimes with leg/feet scores close to 2 points lower than the rest!) bc of flaws in the lower forelimbs. And the judges kept coming back to "But you wouldn't buy that leg."

Bc again, this is all about developing talent and models for the upper level of the sport. And at the upper levels.... conformation flaws can often mean breakdowns.

another example of commentary describing a horse the judges liked
Anyway, next on the sheet comes Movement, with individual scores (and different coefficients) for the Walk and Trot. Walk has a higher coefficient bc it's also the gait that tells you more about how the horse might canter or gallop. This is always so important for me personally to remember bc I fully admit to being suckered in by a pretty trot.

But.... The trot alone ain't enough for a winning event horse. As evidenced by the fanciest trotting horse we saw all day actually ending up scoring the worst over all in his class, oops!

this horse looked like he kinda wanted to play with us under the tent lol
For the walk, they wanted to see a very fluid, natural "throughness" in the horse that presented as good overstep and relaxed oscillation in the neck. They wanted "march" in the steps too, placing each hoof with purpose rather than kinda just plodding along.

this little filly was fancy and she totally knew it haha via GIPHY

In the trot they wanted to see engagement and hind end activity, combined with good reach through the shoulder. Tho it was my impression that the hind end activity was the priority here. Funnily enough, tho, in some ways the puddles worked to the handlers' advantage since a lot of the baby horses were especially active through the muck haha.

For both gaits, tho, a correct rhythm was a must. And while obviously it's tough to ask baby horses to not have tension in this sort of setting, they really wanted to see those moments when the horse would really be loose and soft over their backs. 

hijinks abound!
I thought it was cool tho how forgiving the judges were of all the baby horse shenanigans. There was zero commentary, actually, on presentation in terms of grooming or tack. And while one handler went a bit off course in her presentation on the triangle, quite a few got dragged wayyyyyy off their lines, and almost all experienced breaking gaits at some point or another, the judges really didn't seem to mind at all.

They just went wherever they had to go to get a good look at the horses. And if they felt like they needed to see more walk or trot, they just asked the handler to do another circuit. Nbd, and no impact on scoring.

unrelated: loch moy always has a collection of shoes found on the xc course, many of which still have the studs attached. i'm always fascinated by the different shapes, sizes, types, and materials!
Tho they did often observe on the quality of handling we saw at this event: saying that all the horses seemed very well presented. Which makes sense since a lot of the pros in these classes have specifically carved out their niches in the horse world by focusing on developing young talent. So... ya know.... this is basically what they do haha.

Anyway, last score on the test sheet was General Impression, which also had a high coefficient. The judges would often provide commentary on the "whole package" of the horse, like the above comment "Athletic prospect with conformation to match." And this is basically the score that kinda separates the "would buy" horses from the... rest haha.

Personally I probably would have taken literally any of these horses home lol. A few in particular just had such sweet eyes and expressions! But. Ya know. Maybe in another lifetime! All the same it was really cool to get to see such amazing young horses and listen to the judges converse about the ideal "model" horse for the future of eventing.

From a volunteer perspective, it was a pretty easy gig. If you like scribing and don't mind being on your feet while doing so, it's totally worth your time! Think you'd ever sign up for something like this? Or maybe attend some sort of clinic or educational program focused on this topic?

Is conformation something you're really passionate about? Or are you more like me, kinda fuzzy on the finer details but think it's interesting from an academic perspective? Or maybe you have a young horse and see these types of classes in your future? Or have already participated and have a different perspective to offer?


  1. the shoe table is fascinating to me - especially that most of them had pads!!

    seeing FEH/YEH stuff always makes me want to buy a real baby baby... theyre sooo cute and full of potential!

    1. lol they sure are cute when they're all gussied up and braided in their pretty name plate halters or show bridles. but...... haha yea i think i'll just enjoy from a far and stick with my nice emotionally mature riding horse!!!

  2. That would be fascinating. I loved that filly 'oooh I'm stepping in mud puddles!'

    1. it was definitely a really cool experience!! honestly i didn't get to really watch as much as i wanted bc there was a fair amount of administrative stuff to fill out on each test sheet. so i spent a lot of time listening with my eyes down vs being able to see what the judges were describing. would love another opportunity as a spectator too!

  3. What a cool experience! I love hearing about what other people prioritize in horses.

    1. ditto - i'm always super curious to hear like, "what is the first thing you look at when evaluating a horse?" bc i have one friend who would say "100% i look at the feet first" and another friend who is all about looking at the neck first. all with different reasons and based on different experiences etc.

  4. I REALLY wanted to take my yearling filly to an FEH event this year. Not that I think she would score super well (she's Appendix QH, and while *I* think she's super cute, probably not upper level eventing potential), but just to get a professional's opinion on her conformation. However, monies have been put more toward my gelding that I'm competing with, so the baby stuff has to go on the back burner this year :(

    I'm like you, I don't know a ton about conformation, especially with lower limbs, but I'm always trying to increase my knowledge. I put more stock in temperament and brain when buying a horse (although I have been side tracked before by *fancy* qualities), but I also understand how good conformation lends itself to better soundness and longer usability. Especially when buying a young horse, the conformation and movement play a much bigger role in deciding to purchase, since the horse doesn't have any time under saddle and you can't evaluate their rideability. I love your posts from these events, and am living vicariously through Amanda at $900 FB Pony as she preps Presto for FEH champs!

    1. oh man, yea these classes are not an insignificant financial outlay, i can totally understand being hesitant about that! and yea the judges definitely felt pretty strongly about conformation, esp in the lower limbs. the conformation and movement are held entirely separately tho - both in the judge's scoring sheets and from my impression of their discussions on the horses. there were horses they liked very much in build and conformation who were kinda just so so in movement, and others who were extremely impressive movers but had issues in the limbs. my interpretation from scribing is that they'd pick the well conformed horse over the fancy mover, but that the model upper level prospect would be both.

  5. That sounds so interesting! And it makes good sense that good leg conformation is rewarded above fancy-ness, happy to hear the judges feel that way too.

    1. yea agreed. it was esp useful for me to hear the judges be so dismissive of a big expressive trot when the walk wasn't as strong.

  6. Wow what fun that must have been (albeit a bit wet!!) LOL

    I am glad a few yearlings actually looked like yearlings (cleaned up well presented yearlings but yearlings).

    Glad you had a chance to do that. That would be so interesting to watch!!

    1. it was super fun, and super interesting!!! and actually the weather, while wet, wasn't as cold and raw as when we did that YEH clinic last year haha. there weren't quite as many learning opportunities as a scribe vs attending that clinic, but it was still very very cool!

  7. I love scribing for this very reason - being able to hear the judges commentary, asking them questions and figuring out what/why they're scoring. And I've found that when I do ask questions, the judges are always super happy to chat with me and explain. Love doing that! Sounds like such a fun opportunity for you despite the rain!

    1. definitely!! we didn't have a whole lot of time for discussion between the scribes and the judges at this event, unfortunately. with the weather, everyone was very focused on keeping the classes moving so the poor baby horses didn't have to be tested beyond reason in the nasty conditions. plus each score sheet had kinda a lot of administrative stuff i had to write in, so i mostly had my head down writing for the whole time, without interrupting much with questions.

  8. How cool! I'd love to scribe for something like this to pick up tidbits like you did from the judges. I learn more about conformation every year. It interests me a lot, but it's just not something I prioritize currently with what free time I do have to learn more about. I know there are lots of resources out there and when I one day shop for another horse, I'll definitely utilize them, but that day is pretty far away, so I'm not fussing with it yet!

    1. yea i mean, i haven't spent a lot of time studying conformation bc it's kinda one of those things like, 'so what? what am i going to do with this knowledge?'

      like i'm not going to learn about some important angle or whatever, decide charlie isn't well built enough, and then sell him haha. like, no, at a certain point the horse is what he is and we as riders just work with what we have. from a bigger perspective as a horse person tho, i see a lot of value in continuing to learn at least the broad strokes of what makes a "nice" horse and key ways to evaluate any given horse, even if i'm not likely to put much of it to practice by doing a lot of buying and/or selling. and perhaps more applicably, it's nice to know which sort of specifics a judge might be looking for in evaluating a horse so that i can better understand what to highlight in my own horse.

  9. Very interesting!! Thanks for sharing Emma. Sounds like an extremely educational experience, and definitely something i could use to learn more about.

    1. definitely super interesting and educational! like it's not super applicable for me bc i'm not exactly involved in developing equine talent for the future of my sport.... but simultaneously i really like learning more about this stuff and honing my eye!

  10. I can't wait to see which of these horses are with the pro riders in a few years kicking ass and taking names!!!!

    1. i know, right?!? tho honestly part of me is relatively convinced that most of these incredible well bred creatures end up owned by amateurs or otherwise private type riders. i feel like a lot of them start to get priced out quickly esp for those professionals who don't necessarily have a large support network of owners. but i could be wrong about that- it's so hard to tell sometimes!

  11. Sounds like a really cool opportunity to learn. I can't stand for just about any period of time (previous broken back), but I'd love to sit nearby and just listen. I guess that's called a clinic, but you know what I mean.

    1. honestly i'm not totally sure that the scribe absolutely *had* to be standing for this. it seemed to work for the judges, who were both relatively mobile, but then again i basically just stayed in the same spot under the tent anyway. the YEH stuff i've scribed for, including the jumping phases, was all done sitting tho for sure and i really enjoyed that too

  12. very interesting! I show halter in the QH world and they don't score the classes at all - it is all just the eye of the judge. Personal preference comes into play big time! There are also regular halter classes (judged on horse's appearance, muscle etc. and conformation) and then there is a performance halter class (more based on conformation, fitness and riding suitability). Seems a bit weird to separate the two, but some regular halter horses are such terrible movers they never get broke to ride! Crazy when you think of it that way... lol

    Also very interesting that the judges can confer and discuss scores! I've scribed trail/reining/western riding a lot for QH shows and the judges have to be separated enough so they can't hear each other talking to their scribes!

  13. Sounds quite similar to hunter breeding where horse shenanigans are ignored. There are some really great ways to cover up some of the flaws of a horse by standing them up a certain way or choosing to lead them in others.


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